According to Istomin, understanding Chopin’s music is something innate. You understand it immediately or you’ll never get it: “Chopin is a special cup of tea, because of a particular international idiomatic Polish-Slavic quality in rubato and rhythms, which are intuitive and have to be understood early in life.” Thanks to his Slavic roots, Istomin had no doubt that he understood it: “I think that I am a very idiomatic Chopin player.”
There was a long-standing debate among American critics: was Istomin a Beethoven or a Chopin player ? In the 40s and the 50s, it was inconceivable that a pianist could be both! Reviewing the same recital, it was frequent for one critic to rave over his Chopin and malign his Beethoven, while the other laid claim to the exact opposite. For his part, Istomin was convinced that he was able to serve both composers with equal pertinence, and he refused to take the critics’ inept prejudices seriously.
Graduation Recital at Curtis (1946)
Istomin played a great deal more Chopin throughout his career than one would imagine today. He performed the Scherzos on a regular basis, even programming the complete cycle a few times at his debut, and then giving precedence to the First and the Fourth. As to the Impromptus, he only neglected the First. In the 50s and 60s, he used to play a selection of Preludes (but never the complete cycle). By going through his recital programs over the years, we can also find the Fantasy, the Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise Opus 22, the Tarantelle, a few Etudes, and a handful of Mazurkas, Waltzes and Nocturnes, not to mention the Polonaise “Heroic” which ended so many of his concerts. Encouraged by William Kapell, who loved this work and made a memorable recording of it, Istomin worked on the Sonata in B minor, but never performed it in public because it was too closely associated with the memory of his friend’s tragic death.
Istomin playing Chopin in the mid 80’s
Istomin’s interpretations of Chopin were always devoid of sentimentality. There was ample liberty in his very personal phrasing, but his rubato never endangered the pulse or the main thread of the musical narration. Istomin disliked the famous definition of Chopin’s rubato by Liszt, referring to the wind which plays upon the leaves and sets them into motion, while the tree itself does not move. This image has been harped on so often that it has completely lost its original significance. In order to evoke the subtle fluctuations of tempo this music requires, he referred instead to the beating of the heart, which undergoes endless variations when influenced by our emotions. In his master classes on Chopin, Istomin always insisted on the drama and the feeling of distress. For him, the catharsis of sorrow was the mainspring of Chopin’s creation. This underlying feeling of sorrow was sublimated to a greater or lesser degree, but remained omnipresent. The dissonances which had so shocked his contemporaries, in particular Schumann, were the outward expression of a suffering which could not be resolved, either within his heart or in the harmony. The work by Chopin which Istomin performed most often was the First Scherzo, perhaps the most dramatic and dissonant of all.